My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father

The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Monday, March 2, 2015

Don Christensen's Fifth And Final Mission

Seventy years ago today. . . .

March 2, 1945 was a special day for Lt. Donald Christensen. It was his wife Jocile’s twenty-fourth birthday. She was six-months pregnant and due to deliver their second child, my brother Steve, in June. If things went right he would finish his thirty-five missions or perhaps the war would be over and he’d be home for the new birth and to be reunited with his son, Donnie. He had a tight-knit, confident, and dedicated crew who looked to him and trusted him for leadership. After four successful missions, including one where he brought a severely crippled plane down safely in Belgium, he had experienced plenty of flak but, like most of his bomb group, had yet to see a German fighter.

In fact, since Don’s arrival at Nuthampstead on February 1, the 398th had lost only one plane to fighters. On February 22, 1945, the Hubert F. Beatty crew was attacked by a ME-262 jet and went down in flames at Attendorf, Germany. The pilot and copilot were killed and six other crew members became POWs. By contrast, since the beginning of 1945, seven 398th planes had been lost to flak.
 During the last five months of the war, flak rather than enemy fighters was generally the bomber crews’ larger and more consistent worry.

German ME-262 Jet

By 1945, Luftwaffe air defenses were greatly diminished. The problem for the Reich was not a shortage of fighter aircraft. They had plenty of planes, including ME-109s FW-190s, and their new ME-262 jet fighter. But they were short of fuel, proficient pilots, transportation facilities, and adequate airfields. Three years of air war against American and British bombers and fighters had robbed them of their most skilled pilots. American P-38s, P-47s and P-51s, along with RAF Spitfires now ruled the skies over Germany. The introduction of the long-range P-51 Mustang in 1944 had really turned the tide; it was simply the best fighter of World War II with long-range capabities and the Germans had nothing to match it.

When General Jimmie Doolittle assumed command of the Eighth in early 1944 he turned his fighters loose to hunt down the enemy in the air and on the ground. “If it moved, could fly or supported the German war effort,” he said, “I told my pilots to kill it in place.”  This proved to be a very successful strategy and assured that the Allies controlled the skies over France prior to D-Day, and they continued to dominate the outgunned and out-skilled Luftwaffe thereafter. 

Also, by late 1944, the Eighth Air Force had finally stumbled upon a winning strategy by bombing German fuel production, transportation facilities --especially railroads canals, and bridges -- power stations, and airfields, thereby destroying fuel supplies, enemy aircraft, and many long runways needed for the Reich’s jet fighters. 

So by 1945, the air war for Germany had become, in Willi Reschke words, “The Bleeding to Death of the Fighter Arm,” and the Luftwaffe could mount only sporadic defensive sorties against the Allies. One of their last desperate defensive efforts came on that fateful March 2.

The Eighth Air Force put up over 1200 bombers that day. Don's group, the 398th BG, was part of 1st Air Division's force of 444 planes, that were to attack the synthetic oil facilities at Bohlen in eastern German; another long grind that would take at least 10 hours there and back. 

 Mission Map For March 2, 1945

On that day, after weeks of little or no fighter activity, the Luftwaffe ordered all available fighters airborne in what would prove to be their last major show of resistance against the western Allies. Air battles were fought across the sky that day from Magdeburg, Germany in the northwest to Prague, Czechoslovakia in the southeast, with significant losses for both sides. However, at the end of the day American fighters and bombers controlled all German airspace; the Luftwaffe lay in shambles. Ironically, this day also proved to be the last mission by Don Christensen and his crew. Peter Kassak has chronicled this unusual day well in his book, An Ordinary Day In 1945.

That morning did not begin well for the 398th Bomb Group. First, they had trouble “bunching up” before crossing the English coast, and after that their formation was only fair. Following a long flight across Germany with many hours on oxygen, their primary target was the petroleum facilities at Bohlen, Germany. But with worsening weather conditions and an 8/10 (80%) cloud cover, the bomber stream turned toward the secondary target, the railroad marshalling yards at Chemnitz. As the 398th approached Chemnitz, things deteriorated further. Communication went out between the three squadrons, creating much confusion as the squadrons got separated and could not coordinate their attack.

Group Commander’s report for that mission states: “Communication between Lead and High and Low [squadrons] was out. High and Low did not know what target was being bombed so evidently prepared to make separate runs. Got separated from Lead and in making 360’s got separated from each other.”

As Don's 603rd Squadron approached Chemnitz on its own, their PFF radar was not working properly and they did not get good location of the target, so Command Pilot Ken Beckstrom suddenly decided to go around again for another run. This turn took them many miles south over Czech territory.

Don was flying with his regular crew except for the addition of navigator Lt. Harry Ostrow who was on his first mission with the Christensen crew. Their regular navigator, nineteen-year-old Lawson Ridgeway, was in the squadron’s lead ship that day. He was a good young navigator and was being trained to be lead navigator by Bill Frankhouser, who was nearing the end of his tour. 

Don Christensen's Plane

As noted earlier, Don Christensen’s plane for these last two missions, 44-6573, N7-K, had been disabled and AOC (abandoned on continent) in January and only recently reassigned to the 398th following repairs for damage and mechanical failure, but the aircraft continued to have problems. That morning Don was having mechanical or electrical problems with his flaps and difficulty keeping up with the rest of the squadron. Being far into eastern Germany it was too late to abort the mission, so his best course was to try to stay with the formation for protection, but he was having great difficulty and continued to lag behind the rest of the formation. 

Flight engineer Robert Dudley was doing his best to operate the flaps by a hand crank, but this was a poor substitute for the electric motors. One can easily imagine the concern and emergency actions by Don and his crew, knowing that they were in a precarious situation deep over enemy territory. Near the IP, about 30 miles from the target, they were forced to drop their bombs to lighten their load but continued to lag behind..

While making that sudden and unexpected right-hand 360 degree turn over Chemnitz the whole 603rd Squadron came apart, throwing Don further out of formation, as in a game of crack-the-whip. At this vulnerable moment the scattered squadron was attacked by a group of German FW-190s. The Christensen plane, already more than a half mile behind the rest of the formation, was a prime target, a straggler. It was 10:30 AM.

Lt. W. M. Gibbons, 603rd Lead Bombardier, reported, “We went into the Secondary target on PFF but did not get a good run so decided to go around again. We made our turn and as we proceeded out to get enough distance for another run we were subjected to attacks by bandits…we were out of Wing and Group formation.” []

The great irony and piece of bad luck is that Don happened to be flying a defective aircraft on the very day that Germany launched all their fighters in one last defensive effort in the air.  It was another one of those strange anomalies that happened so often during the war.

The enemy fighters initially made a pass through the loose squadron formation then turned and attacked from behind. Three or four of them came after Don Christensen’s struggling plane. After the war, surviving tail gunner Selmer Haakenson explained: “Approximately thirty minutes before reaching our target we were forced to drop our bombs due to mechanical difficulty with the flaps. Flight engineer Sgt. Robert Dudley went to manually retract our flaps. Shortly after his return we were attacked by approximately 6 FW-190s.” The plane took several hits from German 20mm cannons, especially in the tail section, and was forced further out of formation. [MACR #12853]

The German pilots from JG-301 “Wilde Sau” that attacked the 603rd that day were flying FW-190 A/9s, a late modification first introduced in September 1944.  It was a high altitude, high performance plane with two 13mm machine guns and four 20mm cannons. German pilots often employed the “company front,” or wedge formation in attacking bombers in a group, usually from the front or side and then from behind, and their first objective was to put the tail gun out of action. As JG pilot Willi Reschke writes, “My first burst was directed at the tail gunner; he had the widest field of fire and posed the greatest threat to me.” This is the same strategy used against the Christensen plane.

During the attack from behind, Don’s tail gunner Selmer Haakenson was severely wounded and blinded in his right eye but still returned fire and downed at least one, possibly two of the FW-190s. In his post-war report sole survivor Haakenson stated, “We received numerous hits from 20 mm guns. One of them disabled my intercom. A piece of shrapnel hit my face on the right side…That hit threw me on my back on the gunner’s floor. I grabbed my parachute and attached it on only one side due to my flak vest. I returned to my place and continued firing and saw an approaching fighter which began to smoke. Shortly after that our airplane banked to the left and the rear part was cut off. Nobody jumped out of that airplane. The rear part fell into a spin…I was not able to jump out. It stopped [spinning] at 2,000 feet. I dropped my flak vest, attached the parachute and jumped out through the rear door.” 

 It is highly likely that badly wounded tail gunner Haakenson downed at least one, possibly two, of the German fighters that attacke the Christensen plane. This is especially plausible since two eyewitnesses reported seeing a fighter behind the Christensen plane go into a smoking dive, and another reported seeing an enemy plane explode from the same position

As the Christensen plane rolled left and disappeared into the clouds below, the tail section separated from the fuselage and the plane became uncontrollable.  
Without its tail, Don’s B-17 went into a flatspin which created a centrifugal force from which there was almost no chance of escape or survival. Accounts from several Czech citizens on the ground state that the Christensen plane came down “falling like a leaf,” landed on its belly, broke apart and caught on fire. 

B-17 "Silver Dollar" Without Its Tail

In addition, one Czech eyewitness to the B-17 crash reported: “Two German fighters also came down. The first German plane landed due to engine failure. The pilot was Lt. [Josef] Krapp, and he said he was hit by one of the American bombers. His FW-190 was identified with a blue '3.' The second crashed into the ground and the pilot was killed." [Flak News, Vol. 6, No. 4, p 4, Oct 1991] This lends further credence to Haakenson’s heroic actions that day, especially since no other 603rd gunner claimed downing a German fighter.

Two other planes from the 603rd Squadron were hit in the fighter attack that March 2, but no other crewmen were lost. Lt. W. O. Coleman’s plane, 43-38864, also flying near the rear of the loose formation, was hit by 20mm cannon shells but made it back over friendly territory before the crew bailed out and survived. After the war three of Coleman’s crew—tail gunner Robert A. Richardson, waist gunner Richard E. Alderson, and radio operator John Menig—were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “courage, coolness, and devotion to duty,” in being severely wounded but returning to their posts and continuing the fight. This award should also have gone to Selmer Haakenson for the same meritorious action, but he became a POW, and after the war had no one left to vouch for him since the rest of his crew had perished.

The other 603rd plane damaged that day was 42-97317; one of the original aircraft assigned to the 398th Bomb Group and piloted Lt. Richard Ellis who was one of the February replacements along with the Christensen crew. During the air battle they lost two engines and were forced to land at Merville, France where their plane was AOC. It was later repaired but not returned to the 398th. Ellis and four of his crewmen were killed twelve days later, on March 14, when their next aircraft, 43-37825, was hit by flak in number three engine, dropped down and exploded. Four survivors were captured and held as POW’s.

After the attack and the loss of the Christensen plane, lead navigator Bill Frankhouser recalls, “The pilots looked for protection that would be afforded by the main bomber stream, but we never did find it. The bombardier dropped our bombs on a rural railroad crossing through a hole in the cloud layer.” Lead bombardier W.M. Gibbons reported “As we were out of wing and group formation it was decided best to get back in rather than make a run all by ourselves. We did get back into the bomber stream and bombed a T.O.O. [Target of Opportunity] on the route back.” 

Most of the nine remaining 603rd planes were low on fuel and nearly all were forced to land on the continent, mainly at B-53 Merville/Calonne, France, for fuel or repairs before returning to base. Only two 603rd planes made it back to Nuthampstead that day.

Debriefing reports from three crew members on those returning planes agree on the essentials of the attack that day but differ in a few details, which is understandable since everyone’s attention was focused on repelling the enemy fighters. Also, no one saw the tail section separate before the Christensen plane disappeared from sight. These reports appear in a Missing Air Crew Report (MACR #12852). I am left to wonder what additional information might have emerged if the crews from the seven other 603rd planes returning the following day had also been debriefed.

Sgt. Richard Mills, tail gunner in Lt. Harold Spangler’s plane, observed: “Our 603rd squadron was attacked by enemy fighters while making a 360 degree turn around the target. On this turn Lt. Christensen’s airplane was thrown out of the formation as he was trying to catch up. I noticed that a fighter plane, which was directly behind him, begin smoking and went into a dive. This was first indication that enemy fighters were in the area. In the following few minutes I was busy shooting at and calling out other fighters to other members of my crew… I looked back and saw Lt. Christensen’s airplane diving straight toward the cloud layer. There was no smoke or flame visible and the airplane appeared to be completely intact. I never did see any parachutes.”

Sgt. Norm Anderson, tail gunner on the Lt. Norm Williams’s crew, reported: “Lt. Christensen’s ship was flying at about seven o’clock from us and about 1,000 yards behind us when three or four FW 109’s attacked it from out of the sun at about nine o’clock….The FW’s made about four passes and Lt. Christensen’s ship went over on its left wing and into a spin with no sign of smoke or fire. I did not see any chutes come out. I watched the ship until it went into the clouds.”

Flight engineer Sgt. Richard Martin also witnessed the attack. “As Engineer of Spangler’s crew, I was flying in the upper turret when the fighters hit us on that Chemnitz raid. Lt. Christensen was flying somewhere between one-half to three-quarters of a mile behind the group….There were four fighters going after Lt. Christensen’s plane. Just before the plane went down one enemy plane exploded behind his plane. His plane went straight down. I could see no smoke or fire. I lost sight of the plane as it went below our horizontal stabilizer. I saw no chutes at the time.”

The 398th Group Commander’s report for March 2, summarizes: “This report is based on the observations and encounters of the only two available crews of the High Squadron which was hit. Other crews are missing or have landed on Continent. Five to six FW-190’s came out of the sun in no recognizable formation, made one pass through the rather loose formation, attacked four of our aircraft (2 of which were knocked down). The formation became loose on the turn while making a 360’ over target south of Chemnitz. Fighters attacked singly from tail about 4 or 6 o’clock position…E/A started attacks at about 900 yards and pressed them to varying distances – closest being about 50 feet…Saw FW’s go down into clouds smoking, then come back up.” A later report added, “The [Christensen] plane encountered mechanical difficulty and was attacked by enemy fighters.”

Bill Frankhouser was lead navigator for the 603rd Squadron that day. In his 1997 book, World War II Odyssey, he writes, “I was flying in the lead ship of the high squadron, with Bob Steele as Lead Pilot and Ken Becksrom as Command Pilot. In addition, we had a second navigator in our lead plane – Rideway [Lawson Ridgeway, Don's regular navigator], who was relatively new in the squadron. Each squadron was to bomb separately through full cloud coverage using the Mickey radar that was available in each of the lead planes. . . Unfortunately, the Mickey system malfunctioned and our bombs were not released on the approach to the target. The pilots asked for a course to circle and make a second approach. Our map showed various flak gun emplacements near the Czechoslovakian/German border at Brux, and we directed the pilots in a wide circle to the south around those guns.

“Next, I saw some small shell bursts ahead of our plane and I wondered what they were. I looked out the side window and saw a German FW (Focke-Wulf) fighter plane – my first close view of enemy fighters in twenty-eight missions. The pilot was flying parallel to us and looking directly at us. The squadron was under attack by several fighters and the shell bursts had come from their 20-mm cannons. This fighter attack downed the Christensen crew whose plane was positioned near the rear of our formation and only one crewman survived – rather miraculously. Certainly the German Air Force still had the ability to play havoc within 8th Air Force bomber formations when fuel was available. Also, our gunners could still respond since two FW-190s were shot down during these attacks.”

In this last major all-out air battle with the Luftwaffe, the Eighth Air Force lost twenty-one bombers, both B-17s and B-24s; 8 to fighter attacks, 7 to flak, 4 to mid-air collisions, one to friendly fire, and one to technical failure. In addition, twenty-three American fighters were also lost that day.

But the battle fared much worse for the Luftwaffe. They lost 133 planes destroyed or severely damaged, including eight of their precious Me-262 jets, 51 FW-190’s, and 50 ME-109’s, along with various other planes. Outnumbered ten to one in fighter strength before this day, and with their infrastructure and petroleum facilities severely damaged, March 2nd marked a body blow from which the Luftwaffe would not recover. German ace Willi Reschke wrote that this was the last time the JG-301 flew a major defensive mission against bombers: “American fighters and bombers now controlled German airspace at all altitudes…This marked the end of once powerful Jagdgeschwader as defense for the Reich.” [Reschke p. 235]

Following that fateful day, Don Christensen and his crew, like so many others before them, were missed for a day or two but were soon out-of-mind at Station 131 amid almost daily missions. They had only been there for one month, were only on their fifth mission, and were not well-known within their own unit, either by other crews or by air or ground echelons. As discussed previously, bomber crews did not fraternize with others easily for that very reason; a friend or the fellow in the next bunk might not be there the next day, and the attrition rate was high. 

Don’s friend and fellow 398th pilot, Marvin Coffee, was one of the few who remembered him well. They had been close since their training days back in the states. Marvin later wrote, “We lost Lt. Don Christensen’s crew. [They] were very close with the Coffee Grinders. We felt a deep loss. As a crew we could speak of it to one another.” A few years ago Marvin told me he wished he had said more about my father when he was writing his memoir, Bird of Prey, since they had been such good friends and shared so many experiences. 

Don’s 19-year-old navigator Lawson Ridgeway, who had been aboard the squadron lead plane that day, was inconsolable. His loyalty and duty, like most airmen, was with his crew, his buddies. “I wished I’d been with them,” he said.

Officially, Don and his crew were declared Missing in Action and telegrams were sent to the families. For years no one in the American military or the crew member’s families knew what had become of them, whether they were dead or alive, possibly POWs, evaders, or wounded somewhere. Even after tail gunner Haakenson returned from POW camp in June, the fate of the others remained unknown. Following the war Haakenson reported, “I am unable to say what happened to the pilot, Second Lieutenant Donald R. Christensen. The interphones were shot out by the first burst received. After I hit the ground I never saw any of the members of my crew again, or heard anything concerning their whereabouts.”

After a year, on March 3, 1946, the War Department issued a presumptive finding of Killed in Action for the eight crewmen. Their bodies were later recovered by the American Graves Registration Service in Czechoslovakia in 1947.

But this is far from the end of the story.

German Photo Of Crash Site, Czechoslovakia

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